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Jim Benning Speaks: on a Crowded Training Camp, Roster Depth, and Jake Virtanen

NHL hockey is near. The Young Stars Classic has already gotten off to a hot start and, in just over a week, the Canucks will take off for their exhibition games in Shanghai and Beijing, China. Although it’s been a long off-season, it’s been busy. Having just re-signed Bo Horvat to a six-year contract extension, the last major task of the summer is complete. As the pre-season quickly approaches, it’s going to get even busier. TSN’s Bob McKenzie sat down with General Manager Jim Benning in an extended interview to discuss all things training camp.

It’s no secret that some substantial moves will be made before the start of the regular season. Both Benning and Linden have mentioned multiple times that, if a young player plays well enough to earn a spot on the team, they will find room. Competition is good – it should motivate each player to out-perform his teammates. In management’s eyes, competition will force players to earn their spot on the roster. Although many are upset about the crowded roster, it makes sense. Nonetheless, it’s tough to have so many young players compete amongst the veterans for just a few spots on the team.

Benning:“We want the kids to be in a competitive environment – to learn to play the right way, to be held accountable by the older players. We want to be competitive in all the games. We want to compete for a playoff spot, we want to see the continued growth in our young players. We’re going to have a competitive training camp this year. We have a lot of extra players – some young players who are hungry and want to push for jobs. That’s what training camp and exhibition games are for.”

Benning: “The last couple seasons, we’ve been decimated with injuries. That was part of adding skill this summer, and the other thing we wanted to do was add depth. If young players are just on the team and not playing, then we’re better served to have them go down and play a lot. When we do have injuries, they’ll get called up and they’ll have their opportunity. You’re right when you say there’s a lot of question marks and it’s to be determined from their performance in training camp.”

As it stands now, the Canucks’ roster is likely to turn out as follows:

Although it’s been said that Derek Dorsett should be healthy for training camp, a cervical fusion surgery is no walk in the park. In an interview with Sekeres and Price on Friday, Benning didn’t appear too enthusiastic when discussing Dorsett, stating “He only knows one way to play and he isn’t going to change his game.” Some may automatically assume he earns a spot due to his veteran status, but that might not be the case. Whether it be due to his serious neck surgery or simply his style of play, there is definitely the possibility that Dorsett doesn’t crack the opening night roster.

Brock Boeser, Reid Boucher, Alex Burmistrov, Michael Chaput, Brendan Gaunce, Nikolay Goldobin, Anton Rodin, Jayson Megna, and Jake Virtanen will be amongst the notable forwards battling for the few remaining spots on the roster.

Speaking of Jake Virtanen… this is a crucial time for him. After a season full of scrutiny, Virtanen will be looking to have a bounce-back year after failing to make the NHL club. When a player makes the team on a full-time basis, one would certainly believe that it’s now his spot to lose. In Virtanen’s case, he lost. The question is: should it have been his to begin with? Virtanen and McCann were the first two draft picks of Benning’s since coming to Vancouver. There was lots of excitement, obviously, as the organization finally had two good prospects aside from Bo Horvat. Possibly caught up in hope to accelerate their development, the 19 year-olds stuck with the team. Was it the right decision? Looking back, probably not.

Benning on Virtanen: “He can play the fast game and he’s a big guy. We’re going to be patient with him. It’s hard to develop power forwards. That’s hard to say because he had an excellent training camp and looked like he was ready to play. As it turned out, he didn’t get a lot of ice time and, at that point, we should’ve maybe made the decision to send him back. We thought he had the size and strength to compete at the NHL level. We were at a point where we needed to try to keep young players and get them up and going. Maybe we made the wrong decision and he didn’t earn the opportunity. That’s why we’re trying to… we want to do things the right way. This is the year that we have the depth with our team and with our prospect pool where we can do things the right way.”

The players competing for the forward spots each have something to prove. Some are more exciting and intriguing players, while others are more “safe” choices. Moves are going to be made and fans will likely be upset. There are many players who we’d all love to see on the team, but unfortunately, there are only a few spots. Benning has this to say on a few of them:

Benning on Boeser:“He’s always been able to play a good two-way game but, from the top of the circles down, his offensive instincts are very good. He has an excellent release on his shot. Those games he played with us – I thought he looked good. It’s different though now. I look at those game at the end of the year as meaningless games. The first 20 games of every season are a different ball game. We’re going to have to see where he’s at in training camp. He definitely has the skill and the sense to be a good player for us this year.”

Benning on Burmistrov:“I remember him playing in Barrie – he was a smart player, a good two-way player, a playmaking centreman. For whatever reason, he hasn’t gotten to where he or we think he should be. When he went to Arizona last year, he played with more confidence. Newell (Brown) talked about how he’s still improving and getting confidence. We signed him because he’s a playmaking centreman and he’s going to get an opportunity to show us that he’s going to keep improving and turn out to be the player that got drafted high in the draft.”

Benning on Molino:“He’s super fast. When we traded Jannik Hansen, we talked about how we were going to get speed. Stan Smyl and Jonathan Bates to our college scouting and they’ve been on him for two or three years. He’s a good two-way player so he plays similar to what Jannik Hansen did. He still needs to get stronger and I think he worked on that this summer.”

Benning on Boucher:“He could always shoot the puck and he could always score. He came in and showed flashes of that skill and that release on his shot. When we talked to him, his thing was wanting to give himself the best opportunity to put his best foot forward. He talked about coming in the best shape he could possibly be in. We’ll see where he’s at this week at camp.”

Unlike the forward group, the Canucks’ defense is almost set in stone. Benning confirmed that the top 6 will consist of:

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Although the top 6 is set, nothing is for sure with regards to the 7th and 8th defensemen. Leading the pack will be Patrick Wiercioch and Alex Biega, with Philip Holm and Andrey Pedan looking to turn heads.

Benning: “Wiercioch is an interesting guy. He’s shown that he can transition the puck, he’s got a big shot from the point. Talking to him, he wants to play with more determination and fire. He has a skill set and he’s a big man. With Alex Biega, what you see is what you get. He’s going to work and compete hard every shift, and he’s going to give you everything he has.”

Unfortunately for Olli Juolevi fans, it appears that he won’t be making the club this season. He has the option to go back to junior with the London Knights, though many have said that he simply has nothing left to learn. Playing in Europe is the other option, where he would have the opportunity to play with men and take on more challenging tasks.

Benning on Juolevi: “He’s going to get a lot of exhibition games. Last year, he played exhibition games and didn’t look out of place. He’s so smart. His ability read the play, his stick positioning – when he gets the puck on his stick he can make that long pass to get your team going the other way quickly.”

Like the rest of the roster, the Canucks’ goaltending situation is undetermined. Markstrom and Nilsson are two relatively young goaltenders who are both looking to establish themselves. From the looks of it, this season will take on the characteristics of a 1A-1B goaltending duo

Benning on goaltending: “Markstrom wants to show people that he’s capable of handling the No. 1 goalie job. Anders Nilsson – he’s a big body and we’ve always liked him. They’re the same age and they’re going to come in and push each other, so we’ll see who wins the No. 1 job. Part of the reason Nilsson wanted to sign was because he wanted to go to a team where he could compete for the net. We have two good goalies, so I’m not too worried about our goaltending.”

Lastly, it wouldn’t be a proper interview without the deduction of some NHL Entry Draft speculation. The draft has been an exciting event over the past few seasons. Since being introduced in 2014, Benning and his staff have drastically improved the organization’s prospect pool, moving from the bottom of the league to now the top third, arguably.

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Towards the end of the interview, McKenzie asked, “In a vacuum, if you could address one specific area of the team – snap your fingers and it would get better – what would that specific area be?”

“Probably a right-shot, power-play defenseman,” Benning said without hesitation.

  • Good article, good read.

    Jim Benning’s job is done for now. His pay is earned by assembling the starting roster we have now along with depth, just in case. I think he accomplished this and I do understand the direction he’s going and why he does what he does. It all makes perfect sense to me. I think he’s done well.

    Competition is a good thing. If some of our prospects and others have to play in Utica for a while, so be it. This isn’t a bad thing. Guys like Rodin, Boucher, Virtanen, and even Boeser can benefit from time in the AHL, hone their game and wait for their chance. Last year, when injuries hit, we didn’t have the depth to call guys up, but not this year.

    Hockey is the greatest sport on earth.

  • wojohowitz

    The most relevant quote was the headline; ‘We’re rebuilding the organization; That’s what we’re doing’. They are not one or two players away from a cup or even the playoffs. It`s called a teardown. Benning is sounding more and more secure in his position, like maybe Aquilini has finally accepted reality – there`s no quick fix.

      • johnno

        Are you serious? The amount of off season vet signings made by the canucks clearly shows they are still ‘retooing on the fly’. To suggest this is now a full on rebuild is totally absurd.

        • DJ_44

          This is a pretty simpistic view of what a rebuild, or transition is. The phrase “total rebuild” or full rebuild is even more stupid. YOu bring in vets as not to put kid in situations that they are not suited (see Edmonton 2005 – 20McDavid). Suggesting bringing in young FAs like MDZ, and Gagner, or even Vaneck on a single year contract is somehow jeapordizing the future is foolish.

  • Steamer

    Nice job Vanessa – thank you. Interesting that Benning neglected mention of Subban…again. Regarding Dorsett’s health, even with a healthy Dorsett this team lacks adequate size and strength. Without Gaunce the situation is now worse; should give added incentive for keeping Virtanen, or even Ryan White as #13 ( #14?). Like the upside of Burmistrov – especially with finishers like Goldobin, Boucher, et al – but the Pacific is a big-body division.

    • Killer Marmot

      I have no problem with the idea of a slow rebuild — that is, introduce two or three new prospects a year into the lineup, all the while trying to remain competitive. It allows rookies to learn from experienced players, and there’s much to be said for that.

      My greatest fear, however, is that it doesn’t happen — that Benning is too conservative in introducing prospects into the lineup, and Utica becomes overloaded with frustrated talent.

      Last year, Benning moved two prospects into permanent places in the roster (Gaunce and Stecher) so perhaps my fears are unfounded. We shall see.

  • Killer Marmot

    The forward roster is not as crowded as it first appears.

    First, there are typically 14 roster spots available, not 12 (although 2 don’t dress).

    Second, there is at least one forward (Gaunce) out with injuries, and possibly more (Dorsett? Granlund?).

    Unless Benning goes very conservative with players like Megna or Chaput, that means that some of these interesting young prospects are going to start the season in Vancouver.

  • jaybird43

    Nice interview Vanessa. Henning has done a good job and that’s really going to start to show this season. Two seasons from now, we’ll get into the spring playoffs as a strong team.

  • Chris the Curmudgeon

    My question is, if someone outplays Sutter can they have his roster spot? I think the answer is probably no.

    With Gaunce out to start the year, I think the remaining forward spots should go to Burmistrov, Goldobin, Boucher and Rodin. Boeser can go and play big minutes in the AHL and realistically be back in the show part way through this year, and Molino could be an injury callup too depending on who is the one being injured. Virtanen could easily spend the entire season in the AHL, at least until he’s forced them to call him up by dominating (I doubt it). When Gaunce comes back, I am sure that at least one out of Rodin, Goldobin and Boucher will have fallen off a bit and earned a demotion to Utica to play more minutes. I don’t want to see either of Megna or Chaput in the NHL this year unless the injury bug bites really hard.

    And for God’s sake, can you please just let us see Subban play a little.